Parents often confuse the terms "legal" custody and "physical" custody.
Legal custody is decision-making. In what faith will the children be raised? Where will they go to school? Will they go to public or private schools? Will they play contact sports? Does a child need medical treatment? Braces? Glasses? Mental healthcare treatment?
Typically, legal custody is shared by both parents, because both parents care about and should have a voice in the care of their children. It is only when the parents cannot communicate in any sense of that word, or when one parent is absolutely incapable of making responsible decisions, that the right to make such decisions is delegated by the court to only one of the parents.
Where do the children sleep at night? When the parents are physically separated, the children will typically be sleeping at the home of one or the other of the parents on any given night. The number of "overnights" will determine whether the parents have:
Primary custody (one parent has 223 or more overnights per year);
Shared custody (each parent has 50% of overnights); or
Substantial custody (the out-of-custody parent has 146 or more overnights per year)
The standard for determining custody is "the best interests of the child." In the past, 'mom' was often favored as the primary custodial parent, with 'dad' having every other weekend, an evening during the week on alternate weeks, every other national holiday, a week in the summer. That traditional thinking has begun to erode in recent years.
Courts are now much more favorable to shared custody arrangements, when possible, as it is believed that children benefit from time spent with both parents. Typical shared custody patterns are 5-2-2-5 or 4-3-3-4 (alternating number of days spent in the custody of each parent), although parents are encouraged to work out a schedule that accommodates their particular situations (work, school, etc.).
In Allegheny County, once a custody proceeding has been initiated the parties are required to participate in the Family Division's Generations Program. Both parents, and children aged 5 through 17, are required to attend education programs. After having completed the education seminar, the parents are required to attend two hours of mediation. It is to be hoped that the parents can work out a satisfactory custody schedule at mediation, which schedule can later be put in the form of a consent order of court.
Most counties in Pennsylvania have programs similar to Allegheny County's Generations Program.